Arkansas native, Jeff Nichols is a rather new talent to Hollywood. With only four, full length feature films under his belt, however he has made his name for creating moody, interesting, character pieces and has worked almost exclusively with actor Michael Shannon in every one of his films, thus far. My own personal favorite film of Mr. Nichols is Taking Shelter, a 2011 film that features a construction worked (Michael Shannon) who begins to see horrifying images and suspects that he is either going insane or is the prognosticator of a coming catastrophe. It was a great film and features one more outstanding performance my Shannon, who is able to balance madness with legitimate fear, convincingly. Midnight Special features another standout performance by Shannon as the father of a young boy who has magical powers. He kidnaps him from a cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) who is the boys adopted father.
What the film sets up is that Roy (Shannon) was once a believer of the cult but has since had a falling out. His boyhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) once a state trooper now is helping Roy and the boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) who are on the run from the cult and government officials, including an inquisitive sort from the NSA, Sevier (Adam Driver). They are trying to get to a set location within a period of time at which an entity will reveal itself to the world. Alton, though, is the key. Along the way, the stop to pick up Alton’s biological mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, in some of the finest work she has done in a while). With just about EVERYBODY after them, the four of them make a break for this special location.
If this plot sounds familiar, John Carpenter’s Starman from 1984 comes to mind. It told the story of an alien who inhabits the body of a widow’s (Karen Allen) husband based on one of the dead husband’s hair follicles. Everyone was after them as well, as the two sped for a location that the alien’s mother ship was going to pick up the alien and go home. It was a beautiful film about life and death and the bridge between them. Jeff Bridges as the alien, garnered an Oscar nomination. Midnight Special is not as good as Starman, does not have the same emotional punch that Take Shelter has, but it is a good film about faith.
Shannon, Dunst and Edgerton really deliver some excellent performances. Each of them has experienced heartache in some form or fashion, especially Dunst. The film does not go into too much about the relationship of Roy and Sarah. What I gathered was that they were married and involved with the cult. The went their separate ways and both left the cult but for some reason decided to give Alton up for adoption to Calvin. Dunst forgoes the glamor of her good looks and instead is a picture of sadness and pain and she does it so well that I believed every regret filled glance she gave. Sarah is a woman who has a short life of bad choices and mistakes. Roy has regrets, too, but is determined to accomplish what he has set out to do, regardless of the consequences. Edgerton is tough and resourceful as Roy’s boyhood friend, Lucas. He is not sure what he believes but he believes in Roy. That is enough for Lucas to risk his life.
The rest of the cast, most notably Sam Shepard and Adam Driver are not really in the film that much and I would have liked to have had some more depth to their characters. They are important enough for these four people to go on the lam from, but never explained what kind of threat these two pose. Jaeden Lieberher is excellent as Alton who is a child but seems wise beyond his years. I particularly loved David Wingo’s, a staple in all of Jeff Nichols’ films, soft but determined score. It is definitely worth purchasing and is one of the best scores of the year.
The heart of Midnight Special is the acting, but also the writing and direction, by Nichols. He has written and directed all of his films and has a talent for both. Midnight Special is thought provoking and interesting, well acted, written and directed but I came away a little underwhelmed. Maybe I have been spoiled by Take Shelter being so darn effective and sticking with me, even to this day. Midnight Special seems to just end without much explanation. Still, there is a lot to like in this film which is also beautifully shot by Adam Stone and edited well by Julie Monroe. It has a flow and tone that kept me interested and the performances are standout. Jeff Nichols is, quite simply, one of the best independent filmmakers in the business.
Midnight Special – ***3/4 out of 5
Midnight Special – Rated PG-13 for violence, harsh language and adult situations
Midnight Special – Run Time is 115 minutes
Midnight Special is now available on DVD and On Demand